The Green Butchers (2003)

Directed by: Anders Thomas Jensen

As with most of my more unfamiliar DVD selections that were made after minutes of chin stroking in Poundland I chose this film purely because of the cover. No, not the cover pictured above. The cover of my copy is darker, with a harrowing shadowy shot of Mads Mikkelsen’s tortured facial expression, a severed leg hanging from a meat hook and choice quotes from various reviewers of the film, stating it was “Decidedly Sick”, “Gruesome” and “Grisly”. I anticipated a gorefest with little subtlety, what I ended up watching was actually a black comedy.

The film begins, its barbecue season in a sleepy Danish town and Svend (Mads Mikkelsen), his girlfriend Tina, and her friend are joined by Bjarne, who is Svend’s shy stoner work colleague. Svend and Bjarne talk about setting up their own Butcher shop since they are fed up with working under their mean spirited boss Holger.

We learn that the laconic Bjarne smokes twenty joints a day to numb the pain. His twin brother Eigil lies comatose in a Sanatorium because of a fatal car crash which killed their parents and Bjarne’s young wife. Whilst visiting his wife’s grave he meets Astrid, the kookie, blonde crematorium worker, who possibly could be categorized as a ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’.

Svend and Bjarne open their Butcher’s shop and no customers turn up, which is a shame because Svend had prepared his special marinade sauce. The day goes disastrously and to compound matters Svend accidentally locks an engineer in the freezer. The next day Svend turns up to work after splitting with his girlfriend Tina and finds the frozen body of the now very much dead engineer. In a panic he attempts to hide the evidence by cutting off the engineers leg and turning the meat into cutlets that he names ‘chicky-wickies’. To get rid of the evidence he gives the meat, covered in his marinade sauce to Holger who is throwing a barbecue for members of the Rotary Club.

Bjarne is shocked by his friend’s actions despite a flock of customers appearing at the Butcher’s shop, eager to try the meat that was so very well received at the Rotary Club barbecue.

At this point in the film I’m thinking the story will veer towards Sweeney Todd territory, or even that classic ‘Treehouse of Horror V’ Simpsons episode which features ‘Nightmare Cafeteria’. It actually develops into a rather touching tale, as Svend finally finds the acceptance he has been seeking since childhood, and feels proud to be a successful Butcher. Bjarne learns to love again, and deals with his tragic past when his twin brother Eigel, who is mentally disabled, awakes from his coma.

Nikolaj Lie Kaas’ double duty as Bjarne and Eigil is a particularly brilliant acting turn, overshadowing the performance of the always reliable Mads Mikkelsen. It is astounding how he portrays Eigil with such innocence. He reminds me of Toby Kebbel’s ‘Anthony’ in ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’.

The film isn’t strictly speaking a horror, sure the acts of murder are horrific, yet there is little graphic gore, although you could say, if you’ve ever stepped foot behind the sterile counter of a Butcher’s shop, then the backroom contains enough horror, particularly if you are a vegetarian, and even if you aren’t, don’t go back there because you probably would consider becoming one.

In Svend’s mind, when he finds the frozen corpse of the engineer, it somehow makes sense, given he is in a room full of meat cutting implements, to dispose of the body with ruthless efficiency. He turns into a murderer after finding social acceptance; he doesn’t want to lose what he has accidentally acquired. Mikkelsen’s Svend is an unsympathetic loser, who deserves to fail. His actions throughout the film are cowardly.

Director Anders Thomas Jensen continues to stay close to his Dogme 95 roots. The film is undoubtedly about love, yet Jensen explores this broad concept intricately from several angles. The naïve Astrid being wholly benevolent, appreciating life because she works so close to death, Svend seeking love despite never thawing his icy, self-preserving defensive demeanour, Eigil wanting the love of his brother and Bjarne discovering love can close the doors of tragic memories that are hard to forget.

For those not exposed to Danish cinema, this is a nice little film for you to dip your toe into its deceptively vast grey sea.

– RJW

7/10

The Green Butchers on IMDB
Buy Green Butchers [DVD] [2007]

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Pusher (1996)

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

I hummed and hawed about including this film. Mainly because right now Refn is a big deal in Hollywood after all the praise that has been lauded upon ‘Drive’, and his previous work is now very much under the mainstream spotlight, people are actively seeking out his back catalogue. ‘Pusher’ is where it all began, the first in the trilogy. Made whilst Refn was aged in his mid-twenties, the film is an unflinching realistic take on life in the dark usually unseen underbelly of Copenhagen.

Refn captures the fallen man in ‘Pusher’ with Frank (Kim Bodnia), the protagonist, a street dealer who is fundamentally flawed by his neurosis and naivety, representing masculine weakness, fragility and hopelessness. Frank can’t balance maintaining ‘healthy’ personal relationships with trying to establish himself and his reputation as a dealer.

Immediately we find ourselves following Frank and his sidekick Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) who both aspire to live the Tony Montana lifestyle, but put the cart before the horse. After a deal goes awry, Frank ends up owing money to his supplier Milo (Zlatko Burić), a creepy Serbian man with a penchant for cookery. His problems multiply when a second massive deal that Frank makes with a former prison cellmate ends up with our bedraggled dealer floating quite literally in the middle of a lake. Milo offers Frank some time to pay him the money back, and Frank finds himself being closely monitored by Milo’s enforcer Radovan (Slavko Labović) as he goes about repaying his debts by visiting junkies who owe him money and calling in some favours, unfortunately Frank learns the hard way that a man in debt is halfway dead.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film is Frank’s relationship with Vic (Laura Drasbæk), a dancer who works in an up market brothel. Frank is very standoffish with Vic, and doesn’t appreciate her vain attempts at building an intimate relationship. Without this relationship the film wouldn’t probably carry the same weight, likely resorting to gangster cliché’s and cautionary drug tales.

We’ve come to expect a certain amount of bleakness from Scandinavian television and film from the likes of ‘Forbrydelsen’, Stieg Larsson’s adapted ‘Millennium series’ and ‘Wallender’. ‘Pusher’ doesn’t need to shock or startle, it relies on Bodnia’s performance, a desperate portrayal of a man whose whole world falls apart after making a couple of big mistakes. The dramatic lunacy Frank displays towards the end of the film is brutally shocking, much more so than if the film ended with a dealer getting his violent come-uppance or a user overdosing in their own filth.

The film is testament to the Do It Yourself ethos that has powered independent cinema, with Refn dropping out of film school, acquiring his own funding and shooting the film on handheld cameras to capture blunt realism set over one hellacious week. The budget constraints work for ‘Pusher’, moody lighting and the chronological sequence that the film was shot meant the scenes snap together, the story never lingers. Frank’s desperate descent is illuminated by shadowy cinematography. Red lights, bar lights, street lights and lamp lights create an unstable paranoiac atmosphere.

– RJW

8/10

Pusher on IMDB
Buy The Pusher Trilogy [DVD]